In the annals of creativity, we hear frequently of the creation of the Post-It Note, used as an example of how creativity happens. A similar example is the creation of Super Glue. (The man known as the inventor of Super Glue, Harry Coover, died this week.)
Here’s one thing these stories have in common: they are both about adhesives, one that didn’t stick very well, and one that stuck too well. Here’s another thing they have in common: they’re not really the result of creativity, or at least not in the way people think.
Post-It Notes began as a mistake. In a 3M lab, an experiment in creating an adhesive (which they did a lot of there) resulted in a poor adhesive, a failure. The creator, Spencer Silver, did not discard it, though. Some years later, another 3M scientist, Arthur Fry, was frustrated by bookmarks falling out of his hymnal, and he remembered the poor adhesive. Other church singers noticed, wanted some, and only then did Fry get the idea that maybe there was a product here. Even then, and it took years for the company to consider actually manufacturing and selling the Post-it Note. An accident, all around, and eventually a serendipitous collision of one thought with another, and a begrudging innovation.
Eastman Kodak also created adhesives. One troubling concoction, created in 1942, was too sticky for any known purpose, and often caused problems when anyone attempted to use it. It was nine years later that Mr. Coover realized that something could be done with it, and it was seven more years before Super Glue made it to the marketplace, in 1958. Again, an accident that eventually, without an a-ha moment, made its way into an innovative product. What’s interesting about Coover and his team of chemists is their 460+ patents – now that’s evidence of the creative process, far more so than one pr two sticky things that stuck around long enough to become products that stuck, too.